We live in a world where people love to talk. Studies suggest that the average American adult speaks approximately 16,000 words per day. Multiply that by a lifespan of 70 years, for a total of nearly 409 million words, and suddenly Christ's warning in Matthew 12:36 takes on new significance: "I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment."
Of course, actual vocalization is only part of how people communicate. The Internet, in particular, has given rise to many other ways in which to speak. A study in 2010 estimated that, worldwide, some 294 billion emails are sent every day. The birth of social media has added to that constant stream of communication. Consider that Facebook averages 55 million status updates daily, along with Twitter's 340 million tweets, and you can begin to appreciate the magnitude of unending chatter that characterizes modern society.
The Internet did not exist when the Bible was written. But the biblical principles for Christian communication apply to online interactions just as they govern real-life interpersonal relationships and face-to-face conversations. Whether we are speaking in person, on the phone, in a letter, or online, Scripture provides us with God-honoring parameters for how we are to communicate with others.
One important passage in this regard is Ephesians 4:14–15, where the Apostle Paul tells his readers: "We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ." Rather than succumbing to the sin-saturated thinking of the world around them, Paul's readers are to reject falsehood and instead speak the truth to one another in love.
From Paul's instruction in these verses, we can derive at least two important applications for Christian communication today. Though somewhat elementary, these points are vitally important for the way in which we speak. First, we are to speak the truth. Second, we are to do so in a way that is characterized by love.
The context of Paul's instruction centers around doctrinal issues (in v. 14), and is directly applicable to the edification of fellow believers (in vv. 15b– 16). We are to speak the truth, then, in contrast to the falsehood of deceptive teachings and worldly philosophies; and we are to do so in love, for the purpose of building up the body of Christ.
Speaking the truth addresses the content of what we say. As followers of Christ, we are to be those who uphold the truth of God's revealed Word. That means there will be times when we must confront error as we contend earnestly for the faith. With unbelievers, this will often take the form of apologetics, boldly giving a defense for the hope that is in us. With fellow believers, this may take the form of confrontation, as we plead with a spiritual brother or sister to repent of sinful thinking or action.
Speaking the truth in love addresses the way in which we speak. We must not be obnoxious with the truth, or personally offensive in how we approach others. Rather, we are called to communicate in such a way that the manner of our speaking honors our Lord Jesus and edifies His body, the church.
When we speak of love, we are not suggesting that we should ignore error or blindly tolerate "every wind of doctrine." Not at all. Biblical love "does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth" (1 Cor. 13:6). Our postmodern world wrongly equates love with tolerance of all beliefs and actions. But being tolerant of doctrinal error or unrepentant sin is not truly loving at all. Thus, we speak the truth because it is the most loving thing we can do.
Additionally, we recognize that biblical love is patient, kind, humble, selfless, and not-easily provoked. It is a sincere love that is characterized by the phrase: "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" (Rom. 12:18). It exhibits the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23); consequently, it is not quick-tempered, self-willed, pugnacious, or needlessly quarrelsome (2 Tim. 2:24–25). It is definitely not soft on sin, error, or false teaching; but it is softened with compassion and seasoned with grace in the way it interacts with other people.
In our evangelism, Paul's instruction to speak the truth in love helps us remember that the goal of apologetics is not merely to win arguments, but to win people. And in practicing biblical confrontation with fellow believers, this same principle reminds us that the goal is restoration. After all, as Paul made clear, the goal of our speech is to edify others.
Paul's instruction in Ephesians 4:14–15 underscores the fact that truth and love are not mutually exclusive concepts. Rather, the content of our speech ought to be characterized by biblical truth. And the manner in which we speak ought to be governed by biblical love. With those two parameters in place, we can make the most of every word that we speak (or type or tweet)—honoring Christ and edifying others through the things that we say.